Women Erased: How Washington Has Failed Missing Native Women
Carolyn DeFord’s photo collection of her mother, Leona LeClair Kinsey, missing since 1999.
Leona LeClair Kinsey often told her daughter, Carolyn DeFord, to never back down. Stand your ground. If someone wants to fight you, fight back. One day, when DeFord was a teenager, she came home crying and told her mom a girl wanted to start a brawl with her in the school parking lot. Instead, DeFord had stayed in the car. Her mom’s response: “You sat in there like a chickenshit?”
At 5-foot-2, 110 pounds Kinsey was known as “a little stick of dynamite,” the woman who’d be “the first to take off her earrings” in a conflict. She wore jeans and combat boots and red fingernail polish. A Puyallup tribal member, Kinsey grew up during the Indian Residential Schools era in the mid-twentieth century, when many Native American children were forced into boarding schools to assimilate into white culture. That made her a survivor, her daughter says.
On October 24, 1999, 45-year-old Leona Kinsey departed from her trailer in La Grande, Oregon. She had planned to drive her light brown GMC Jimmy to the grocery store, she told a friend, and arrive at the friend’s house that night.
She never made it there.
When the friend called DeFord the next morning, wondering where Kinsey was, DeFord was in denial. Twenty-five at the time and living in Lacey, managing a restaurant, DeFord paged her mother and called her landline several times (few people had cell phones back then). She rationalized her mother’s absence. Maybe she got a flat tire, maybe she was on a trip. She left her mom phone messages stating she had an emergency, hoping it would prompt a response. Two days passed, and DeFord realized something was wrong.
She called the La Grande 911 dispatchers to file a missing person report. She says the dispatcher initially didn’t take her seriously, that she had to push law enforcement to search for her mother’s car. A few days later, Kinsey’s GMC Jimmy was found in an Albertsons grocery store parking lot, about a mile from her house.
DeFord drove from Lacey to her hometown—at least a five and a half hour trip—back to her mom’s house to see for herself. She found a full pot of coffee, cigarettes on the counter, her cat, and her dog, whom her mother took everywhere. She still had hope, half expecting her mother to walk through the door any second. When she entered her mother’s bedroom, something drew her eyes down to the ground.
On the floor by the bed, lay her mother’s purse. Kinsey’s purse held her cigarettes, her keys; she didn’t go anywhere without her purse.
Any hope DeFord held had been sucked out of her. She knew now. Her mom was gone.
No one knows exactly how many Native women are missing or murdered. The state of Washington has the second-highest number of known cases at 71, according to a study by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute. Of those, 45 are in Seattle alone. The study, released in November 2018, is the most comprehensive report available to date. Yet its researchers believe the real count is even higher.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, spearheaded this latest report, but it was an earlier study upon which she cut her UIHI teeth. When she took the organization’s helm in October 2016, she already knew that government databases undercounted both the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and the number of Native women who faced sexual violence. But within her first two weeks on the job, Echo-Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, stumbled upon a surprise—and her first big project.
As she was cleaning out her drawers, she found one small file with the results of a survey. A survey that had never been revealed publicly, but would show the extent of violence against American Indian women.
That small paper, from a 2010 study, stated that 94 percent of Native women interviewed in Seattle reported having been raped or coerced into sex. Leaders at the UIHI feared it would lead to more generalizations and stereotypes that would further harm Native women, Echo-Hawk says. The UIHI went so far as to ask the CDC not to disclose the study. Echo-Hawk was determined to get the information out.
She conferred with staff members, searched through UIHI’s old file systems, and began the hunt for more information on this study. She had no dedicated funding for this project, but she found it through side hustles, like charging for speaking engagements.
And finally, in August 2018, she released the long-hidden study. Local media outlets jumped on that number: 94 percent. But to Echo-Hawk, the response wasn’t strong enough.
“While some awareness is being raised, there is not enough outcry. There is not enough righteous anger,” Echo-Hawk says. After a Seattle Times quote mentioned it was common knowledge that at least one member of Chief Seattle Club—a Native-led homeless services provider—is sexually assaulted every week, Echo-Hawk expected there to be people protesting in the streets. Still, nothing. “In this city, in this county, in this state, in this country, we are shown over and over again that our lives and our bodies don’t matter.”
Earth-Feather Sovereign was 14 years old when she was stolen. In 1992, while attending a party in Portland, where her family lived at the time, she says she was kidnapped and raped by three men.
Sovereign recalls the men, all gang members, transporting her to houses and a motel over the next few days, not knowing whether she would see her family again. While locked in a room, she says she overheard them planning to sell her to sex trafficking contacts in Hawaii.
At first her family thought Sovereign just didn’t want to come home. It took a few days before they realized something was wrong. Her mother, Deanna Marcellay Clark, a pillar in the American Indian movement, was a staunch activist against mining on the Colville reservation and unsuccessfully ran for tribal council member against Sovereign’s own father a decade earlier. And now she was looking for her daughter.
After four days a friend had discovered where she was, Sovereign recalls, and phoned the men to tell them Sovereign’s mother would get ahold of American Indian activists. That’s when they returned her home. Sovereign believes it was a relative’s clout that convinced them to abort their sex trafficking plan.
Whether her mother went through with filing a missing person report with local law enforcement is unclear; but Sovereign now believes it wouldn’t have mattered. Native communities often resort to self-run search parties, taking matters of missing people into their own hands.
After the ordeal, Sovereign was angry and confused. She felt ashamed, even blaming herself for staying out that night. Her mother was her rock during that time, she says, putting her in counseling after the kidnapping when she felt suicidal, and in drug and alcohol treatment when she began self-medicating. But she also wished her mom had believed she was missing right away, and that someone had found her sooner. Sovereign’s lost touch with a lot of the people in her life since. To this day, she struggles with returning to the Colville Confederated Tribes or to her Native friends in Portland.
“I feel like a lot of our people and my family let me down,” she says.
She now knows the odds. One in two Native women will experience sexual assault. One in three will experience domestic violence. They are more likely to die of homicide than almost any other ethnic group—after non-Hispanic blacks—according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in 2017. The majority of those deaths come from intimate partner violence, and homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Native women between the ages of 15 and 24.
Sovereign sees the violence against women to be violence against tribes as a whole, as a way to undermine American Indian rights and independence. It leaves tribes in a position, once again, to be financially vulnerable to state and federal assistance, since it takes government agency help to properly look for these women.
Between October 2012 and 2016, federal agencies administered at least 50 grant programs meant to help address Native American human trafficking. But the federal government has been negligent in collecting data especially when it comes to American Indians, per the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A GAO report published in March 2017 criticized agencies for not reporting how many human trafficking victims—and in particular Native American victims—had actually benefited from these grants.
“The Native people, we are a matriarchal society. Our women were our leaders,” Sovereign told me, as she stared out a diner window in Olympia. Under a camo jacket, she wore a shirt protesting the liquid-natural gas plant in Tacoma. “They were mothers, mothers of our nation,” she added. “When there’s no more women, there will be no more women to give birth to our generations.”
On January 23, 2018, Native American Indian Lobby Day, state representative Gina Mosbrucker saw a fishing net held by dozens of Native Americans and covered with signs about missing and murdered women. The sight spurred her to make a call. She phoned state senator John McCoy, a Native American from Tulalip, asking if he knew of anyone to talk to about the problem of missing Native women. Earth-Feather Sovereign just so happened to be visiting his office.
Sovereign, who also co-founded the group Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington, was in the right place at the right time. She headed over to Mosbrucker’s office, still carrying a staff covered in prayer ties made from skirts to honor Native women gone missing.
Representative Mosbrucker, a Goldendale Republican, says she wanted to sponsor legislation that would help missing Native women after first hearing about the issue from a high school friend and tribal member.
“This is an emergency. We have tribes asking for our help, and I’m not sure who’s looking for them,” Mosbrucker says. “It should’ve been fixed. It should’ve been fixed long, long ago.”
The bill that would follow directs Washington State Patrol to craft a report and find the real number of missing indigenous women statewide. Supporters hope that sharing information between local law enforcement and tribes could lead to more effective searches for women. House Bill 2951 was referred to committee six days later.
It passed unanimously in the House and with a 48-1 vote in the Senate, after impassioned speeches from family members—including Carolyn DeFord—about the struggles they’ve had in finding their lost loved ones.
“I feel as if our Native women go missing because the traffickers and the murderers know that if they are taken away, who is really gonna care?” Kayla Crocker-Stell wrote to me by email. Her family had found her aunt after she went missing in Seattle for months in the winter of 2017. “They are just trying to target you because you’re vulnerable, or homeless, and you think they will take care of you.”
Mosbrucker and WSP captain Monica Alexander have met with tribes across the state, trying to receive information about any missing women. (Sovereign wasn’t initially included in the talks, and she says she believes she could’ve opened some doors.) A lack of coordination between local law enforcement agencies and tribes is where the system breaks down, Alexander says. As of November 2018 WSP hadn’t received information from any tribe about the number of missing people, and that concerns her.
Those who go missing on reservations and are reported to tribal police aren’t necessarily also reported to off-reservation law enforcement. Tribes have told state officials that families who report missing loved ones sometimes aren’t taken seriously. “I’m trying to build trust where trust maybe doesn’t exist,” Alexander says. “I want clarity. I want us to be able to get the information.”
Others involved in state and federal databases also express frustration that missing people aren’t reported. Todd Matthews, spokesperson and case management director for NamUs—a federal database of missing people—believes his is the best option for a centralized database, one that crosses state lines and could match a body that’s been taken well out of an agency’s jurisdiction. Operational since 2008, NamUs still has a backlog of cases from the National Crime Information Center that haven’t been transferred into its database. In four other states, Matthews has supported laws that require local police agencies to report missing people to NamUs within 30 days.
Efforts to find women get complicated when you factor in that Native women disproportionately experience domestic violence, WSP captain Alexander says. “If I want to walk away from my husband and not say a word I have a right to do that.”
For unidentified bodies, race also becomes a more complicating factor. While American Indians make up an estimated 2 percent of the U.S. population, as of November 2018 only 102 out of 12,362 unidentified bodies were labeled American Indian or Alaska Native in NamUs. That’s less than 1 percent, despite studies suggesting they’re more often targeted. Asian and Pacific Islander bodies are also less than the national average, while black and Hispanic bodies are higher; and activists believe that trying to identify ethnicity of bodies often leads to errors and underestimations in the count of Native victims.
Knowing that race can often be ambiguous, investigators end up largely relying on dental records and other identifying clues on the body—like broken bones, surgeries, or tattoos. But when other clues aren’t available, that presents a challenge.
“We want to help them,” Matthews says. “Until we’re all using the same database, it’s just fragments.”
Even when missing women are reported, cases typically garner little media attention and rarely lead to happy outcomes.
Debra Otis went missing in June 1979 at the age of 18 when she was on a trip with a man she was dating and stopped by Deception Pass. The 5-foot, 120-pound woman left him and his motorcycle on the bridge to go to the bathroom in a wooded area nearby and never came back, according to his testimony. Though the man contacted her family, seeing if they’d heard from her, it took a few days before Otis was reported missing to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. A search and rescue operation about a week later was unsuccessful.
Jessica McDonald was 21 when she and her husband, a Swinomish fisherman, took a tribal hull out on Samish Bay on September 16, 1997. The boat sank. Her husband was found alive on a rock; McDonald wasn’t. Authorities presumed she had drowned, but they were never able to find the body.
Kelly Diane Sims was 27 when she disappeared in Southwest Washington in 1990. Sims was dropped off at a street corner in Kelso, about an hour north of Portland, by two men at Rendezvous Tavern just two blocks away, according to police reports. Later that night, she was supposed to pick up her kids from the babysitter’s house. She never showed up. Witnesses couldn’t confirm whether she ever made it to the tavern.
“This was out of sorts,” recalls Kelso police chief Andrew Hamilton. “She was a good mother. I just can’t see her up and leaving her kids alone like that.”
The missing person report in October 1990 was the first case Hamilton had been assigned to as a detective. For 27 years, the Kelso Police Department continued to receive tips, and often went through great lengths to follow up on those tips.
Hamilton traveled across the state, from Seattle to Yakima, to talk to suspects or those who seemed to know more about Sims’s case.
But attempts to find Sims’s body with cadaver dogs and chase other tips throughout the decades led nowhere. A missing persons case doesn’t have a crime scene, says Hamilton, and without a crime scene or evidence, it’s impossible to lead to a prosecution.
“Do I beat myself up?” Hamilton says. “I was new. Would you always play the ballgame differently? Yeah, I think I’d have done things differently.… I don’t know if it would’ve changed the outcome.”
When missing women are found, sometimes there’s still little closure. Actress Misty Upham’s career was on the rise. The Blackfeet Nation member had received critical acclaim for her supporting role in Frozen River, was cast in the Academy Award–winning film Django Unchained, and appeared opposite Meryl Streep in the Oscar-nominated August: Osage County.
On October 6, 2014, Upham’s father reported her missing in Auburn; she had left her parents’ home the night before, and didn’t come back, according to the police report. In the following days, Auburn detectives fielded reported sightings of her, according to public records—in Seattle, in Westport, even in California. But friends who had contacted her when she disappeared never heard back.
Nearly 10 days later, Upham’s friends and family organized a search party on the Muckleshoot reservation. They found her purse and, 50 to 75 feet below an embankment along the White River, her body. Coroners couldn’t rule whether the fall was an accident.
Leona LeClair Kinsey used to play a game with her daughter in the car. She would make Carolyn guess what number she was thinking of between one and 10. Sometimes she’d make her guess whether she was picturing a red or black number. And when they got really good at the game, Kinsey would make her guess in front of friends.
Today, Carolyn DeFord wonders whether her mother was trying to train her to be more in tune with her inner compass. When her mother disappeared, any semblance of comfort she did receive came from what DeFord identifies as a spiritual connection. She describes a dream, a few weeks after Kinsey went missing, of a phone call. “Hey kiddo,” she heard, her mother’s voice on the other end of the line. “I love you so much and I am so sorry.” She begged her mother not to go, but Kinsey told her she didn’t have much time. The dream ended when DeFord was awoken by a real phone ring, in the middle of the night. When she picked up, she says, there was nothing but an off-the-hook signal.
She still feels a strong spiritual connection to her mother, who she believes died a long time ago. But there’s no closure, not really. She still doesn’t know what happened. She still doesn’t know where her mother’s body lies. In a small town like La Grande, DeFord feels frustrated that no one has come forward with more clues. Kinsey was thought to have been meeting a man at Albertsons, but the law enforcement investigation didn’t lead anywhere. (La Grande Police Department denied Seattle Met’s attempt to obtain the public records to Kinsey’s case, citing an active investigation.)
“I’m ready to find answers. She deserves to be brought home, she deserves to rest in peace,” DeFord says. “I would like somebody to be held accountable...but I’ll just start with finding her.”
Echo-Hawk, the Urban Indian Health Institute director, says that for so long, Native women have felt invisible. She had struggled with her decision to release the 2010 study on rape when her predecessors had buried it—whether the study would appear too sensational and whether it would do more harm than good.
But as a sexual assault survivor herself, Echo-Hawk felt a deep-seated desire to instigate change and make these women visible. Because the silence was damning. If she were to truly address the violence against Native women, if Native women were to truly heal, Echo-Hawk had only one option. She had to share their story.
“There are times when I felt that I was only surviving,” she says of her own assault. “We don’t have to just survive, we can thrive.… Every single person, every woman in this country deserves that.”
Earth-Feather Sovereign says that trauma is passed on from generation to generation—that when a woman goes missing, her children and extended family suffer. She recalls the domestic violence her mother experienced, the abuse she’s experienced—including her alleged rapes and kidnapping—and the knowledge she passes on to her own children now. Sovereign has two sons and two daughters; she teaches her boys about consent, and worries about the safety of her girls—especially given the statistics and the oversexualization of Native Americans.
While the majority of crimes against American Indian women are committed by non-Native people, tribes have almost no ability to prosecute non-Natives, even on their land. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 provided some tribes limited rights to prosecute non-Natives in domestic violence cases; but Sovereign suspects the immunity to non-tribal members has contributed to Native women becoming even more of a target. The pattern of raping Native women and selling them into sex trafficking began centuries ago, she says, with Christopher Columbus.
The November 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute was especially critical of media bias in reports about missing and murdered indigenous women. Rarely do reporters cover missing Native women, and when they do, they often resort to the popular narrative of sex work and domestic violence, according to the study.
Even a well-intentioned public servant can be prone to relying on portrayals of American Indian women as seen in the media and pop culture. “You have this beautiful, submissive, kind, loving, gorgeous organic woman who isn’t aggressive,” Representative Mosbrucker told me, trying to explain what’s happening to indigenous women. “I think that makes them more of a target. I don’t know, it’s scary, and it’s sad.”
It’s the harmful stereotypes, Sovereign says, that contribute to Native women becoming targets.
Now is an especially hard time for American Indians, Sovereign told me in that Olympia diner. It was October. She had been searching for Halloween costumes for her daughter that day; seeing the oversexualized costumes constantly reminds her of the most famous once-missing Native woman, Pocahontas, who had been captured and held for ransom by Englishmen when she was 17.
“In my lifetime, I don’t see much of a change,” Sovereign says. “But I’m hoping that my grandchildren will be able to feel safer, and to feel like they matter.”